Humanity is closely linked to the natural world; we depend on the natural world for our livelihood, protection shelter and nourishment. At times, these lines become blurred.
Tens of thousands of people will lose their lives because of Covid-19. Millions more will become seriously ill and many of them will lose their livelihoods. As the global economy is abruptly slowed down and stock markets tumble, large corporations all over the world reduce their workforce. Smaller organisations use up any reserves they have, but many a business will be forced to give up. When the outbreak and spread of the coronavirus we now call Covid-19 is over, when reliable treatments and an affordable vaccine are available to all, and the global economy and mobility resumes steps towards normality, the world will analyse the immense damages and losses incurred beyond the loss of life and livelihood.
At this point in time, we, all of us, the rest of the world, must sit down with China and its CPC leadership, and unconditionally demand the design, implementation and consequent enforcement of a joint action plan to fundamentally change the way China is dealing with the world’s wildlife. On Chairman Xi Jinping’s watch, right now there are people who treat wildlife and domestic animals the way animals were treated by homo sapiens before the Neolithic Revolution. Covid-19 shows us with all clarity that we cannot allow for parts of civilisation to remain in the Stone Age, while enjoying modern-day economic comforts and freedom of movement. If we do, the next pandemic will soon be in the making!
As part of this action plan, China, along with the rest of the world, must demand its implementation and enforce strict application across south-east Asia. In Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia, and in any other areas that still operate wildlife wet markets. In parallel, global society must resolve this problem on the Arabian Peninsula, in Africa, and in Central and South America, where wet markets and the illegal consumption of wildlife and bush meat have been the cause of epidemics and pandemics.
What are zoonotic diseases?
Zoonotic diseases are caused by a virus, bacteria, fungus, or parasite that is passed from an animal to a human being. Infections are mainly triggered by close contact to an infected animal, eating contaminated meat, or through bites of insects like mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and flees that carry the pathogen.
Animals have always been reservoirs of diseases that can affect humans. About 60% of emerging infectious diseases originate in animals and more than two-thirds of those stem from wildlife. Where animal welfare is respected, and good standards of health and hygiene are upheld, zoonotic diseases are relatively rare. The problems start when wild animals are poached or illegally captured to be sold, dead or alive, and generally when wild or domestic animals are bred, transported, and kept under inhumane conditions. This is where animal diseases are more likely to transfer to humans.
Where exactly does Covid-19 come from?
The latest research results point to a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Pathogens carried by bats were transferred to pangolins (both kept in abhorrent conditions, to be sold alive for human consumption) from where they infected humans. The most recent studies suggest that both bats and pangolins are intermediate hosts with the disease spreading to humans through civets.
What makes wet markets problematic?
Wet markets sell perishable items some of which are processed onsite. Fresh fruit and vegetables can be found in these markets, but the problems arise from the inhumane conditions in which live animals are kept and the unhygienic conditions in which dead animals are sold. Live mammals and birds put on display in small cages. Fresh water, marine species, and reptiles are kept in small aquariums or buckets. Dead animals cut up and displayed hanging or placed on tables are a common sight in wet markets. Domestic and wild animals on offer for human consumption include dogs, cats, rabbits, ducks, chickens, ferrets, bats, monkeys, civets, foxes, fish, seafood, and snakes, but also endangered wildlife like sharks, turtles, pangolins, owls, and many wild cat species. Many endangered species are illegally captured and trafficked from other parts of the world to end up in an exotic dish.
China is not the only place with wet markets. These types of markets exist all around the world; Malini personally visited one in Peru where meat from wild species and live animals, most of them illegally hunted were on offer. There were Howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys (meat and live animals), caiman and turtle meat, ocelot skins, jaguar skins, puma skins, and many more. Meanwhile, the bushmeat trade in Africa is thriving with recent images of primate limbs being sold alongside bats and other wildlife parts.
However, China along with their southern neighbours are the biggest consumers of wildlife for food and the largely baseless traditional medicine. Asia has become a major threat to global wildlife populations. Poaching, trafficking and illegal sales of protected wildlife, animal parts, and plants now run billions of US Dollars into the pockets of criminal organisations every year. As the Chinese government still allows farming of endangered species such as pangolins and tigers, animals poached elsewhere get easily mixed in with farmed wildlife.
There have been articles of China shutting down their wet markets following the Covid-19 outbreak. Recent videos from amateurs and journalists show, however, that many of these markets are still open and the food and traditional medicine business is booming as usual.
Note on Traditional Asian Medicine (TAM)
Every society has its own form of healing such as Ayurveda from the Indian Subcontinent to Traditional Asian Medicine (TAM) used across Asia. Although both use plant-based products for healing, TAM seeks healing products in animals as well. Today, TAM drives the traffic and illegal trade in wildlife and animal parts with few concrete results.
A publication in Nature from 2007 declares that TAM has little effectiveness and is rather a pseudoscience as it has not delivered any concrete cures for ailments . In fact, the use of aristolochic acid in traditional remedies has has been linked to fatal kidney damage and cancers of the urinary tract rather than bringing relief to disease.
What it has caused however, is the collapse in populations of rhinoceros, pangolins, tigers and many other species which are today listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species largely because of the illegal wildlife trade to provide animal parts for TAM. There are eight species of pangolins, the most trafficked wild animals in the world. An estimated 1 million individuals are removed from the wild in Asia and Africa for consumption in Asia and for TAM . Seizures of several tonnes of pangolin scales are frequent in crackdowns at borders. Decreasing populations of tigers have led poachers to target leopards and jaguars to fuel the trade. Affluent young people in Asia have come to “cutting” drugs like cocaine with tiger bones and rhino horn as a status symbol to display wealth.
To supply the TAM market, China began farming tigers, bears and other wildlife species. In most cases these animals are kept in horrendous conditions. As the Chinese government still allows farming of endangered species such as pangolins and tigers, animals poached elsewhere get easily mixed in with farmed wildlife.
Are there other recent examples of animal diseases killing humans?
Yes, there are several other recent cases. To list but a few:
It is important to remember that some of the most severe cases date a bit further back now: the HIV pandemic and outbreaks of bubonic plague, Hendra, West Nile, Zika, Lyme, for example.
The world must stand together and resolve this problem now!
Very many people are actively engaged in wildlife and nature conservation, as well as general animal welfare. Vast numbers are interested and may even support conservation and animal welfare in one form or another. All these people share the view that irrespective of how poor or rich individual nations and their peoples are, and irrespective of cultural differences around the world: the life of an animal is valuable and must be treated with respect. Anyone thinking that no value needs to be attributed to the world’s wildlife, a healthy natural environment, or even just a stray dog or a farm chicken is now taught once and for all to be wrong. Because here is the complete, plain truth:
If we don’t want to pay the price to protect our wildlife and care for our domestic animals, we will pay the price by having to deal with pandemics such as the current one. The bats, pangolins and civets sold at a sordid market in the backwaters of some Asian city will continue to turn our lives upside down until we acknowledge and act on this fact.
China is not alone on the planet. No nation is.
Covid-19 brings into sharp contrast a fact that some people in influential positions seem to forget. At present seemingly more so than in other times. No matter who you are and how powerful you think you are, you are not alone on this planet. Whether you allow your nation to cause pandemics, allow for your forests to burn down, hide behind business profits while destroying the fragile composition of our atmosphere and oceans, deplete marine resources beyond measure, or stir armed conflicts half way around the globe from where you live, the consequences of your actions will ultimately be borne by all of us, including yourself.